Your pastor and his wife may seem to be the “perfect Christian couple.” He’s a charismatic servant-leader. She plays the organ and makes casseroles like Betty Crocker. Their kids are little angels. But as the tragic events with Matthew and Mary Winkler bear out, who really knows what goes on behind closed parsonage doors?
Larry and Lorrie Russell know. Through Shepherd’s Heart Ministry, a crisis intervention and prevention outreach for ministry leaders, the Russells hear the secrets pastors and their wives can’t tell anyone else. Both Russells, who have ministry experience and hold master’s degrees in counseling, say pastors and their families clearly need help.
Focus on the Family reports a whopping 1,500 pastors will leave their churches this month due to moral failure, burnout or contention within the congregation. Other reports say 80 percent of pastors and 84 percent of their spouses are discouraged or dealing with depression. A report on the state of the pastorate in America claims 80 percent of adult children of the pastors surveyed sought professional help for depression.
Is it impossible for a pastor to effectively serve his congregation, maintain a good marriage, and rear a healthy family today? No, say the Russells. But there are clear warning signs to pastors and their spouses that their marriage is in jeopardy. They also say that there are warning signs for churches that their pastor needs help.
Where are Reverend & Mrs. Superman?
You may be surprised: The Russells say technology adds to the stress today’s pastors feel by fueling unrealistic expectations from their congregations.
Said Larry: “By the time a congregation comes to church on Sunday morning, they’ve already seen the finest preaching and music on television. Whether they want to or not, they have expectations of their pastor’s ability based on seeing those preachers. Disappointment is inevitable by comparison.”
And if the congregation’s expectations that pastor should be a Billy Graham-Andy Stanley-Bill Gaither hybrid don’t exert enough pressure on a pastor, his own inflated expectation of what and who he should be can be crushing.
“Young ministers are woefully unprepared for the realities of ministry life,” said Larry. “Their concept of ministry is distorted. They are theologically educated but not educated for what ministry brings.” Larry says that 50 percent of pastors believe they are not up to the job.
Unrealistically high expectations can extend to the pastor’s family structure as well. “Not every pastor’s family has predefined expectations of who and what they should be (set by external forces), said Larry. “Those expectations vary from church to church, one part of the country to another. Pastors who go from one church to another face an entirely different set of expectations.” And the entire family is expected to adapt.
“Although expectations for pastor’s wives are changing,” said Lorrie, “in some areas of the country, she is still expected to do it all — teach Sunday school, lead the choir —even if she has 13 kids at home.”
Lorrie says that unrealistically high expectations are sometimes put on preacher’s kids, too, from both inside and outside the parsonage walls. “Preacher’s kids are expected to be the best of everybody. Many times, their parents are harder on them than they would be on someone else’s’ child.
“We’re seeing more pastors’ children in deep depression and becoming prodigal with no resources for intensive counseling. The kids say, ‘Ministry has taken over our world.’ External, performance-oriented affirmation becomes the basis for self-esteem and kids rebel against that. They want discipline to be worked out within the family structure. They want parents who will say, “We don’t care what anybody else thinks. We will manage our family in the way we think is appropriate and we will take the fallout.’”
Warning Signs on the Parsonage Door
Trouble is ahead for a pastor’s marriage when the marital relationship becomes polite with no genuine emotional intimacy. “When two single people live in a relationship centering around hectic activity, that marriage is in trouble,” said Larry. “It’s leaving the door open for infidelity.”
Larry credits the easy accessible of Internet pornography with seducing pastors and church leaders. “Pornography use has reached epidemic proportions. It is incredibly nurturing and it can be [viewed online] with very little risk of discovery.”
Larry also believes that it is only a short jump from pornography to acting on the illicit suggestions.
According to statistics accessing the state of the pastorate in America, 37 percent of pastors confessed to inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in the church while 12 percent admitted sexual intercourse with a church member.
“The denial that takes place when pastors or leaders get involved in sexual infidelity is unbelievable,” says Larry. “They don’t feel guilt, remorse, or pain. They can actually sleep with a person on Saturday night and preach a wonderful message Sunday morning. It’s like the two parts of the personality never meet.”
But Larry thinks congregational leaders can help pastors avoid crashing and burning. “Pastors aren’t very good at raising the flag and saying, ‘I need help,’ so notice when your pastor is tired all the time. Look for the warning signs of burn out and intervene.”
Through Shepherd's Heart Ministry, Larry and Lorrie do pastoral crisis intervention as well as preventive workshops.
“It is our hope and aim is to keep pastors and their families out of a crisis situation,” said Larry.
Shepherd’s Heart Ministry under the auspices of Larry and Lorrie Russell has two facilities: Black Forest Retreat Center, Denver, Colorado, and Shepherd's Sanctuary Ontario, Canada. For more information see www.shepherdsheartministry.com
Rebekah Montgomery is the editor of Right to the Heart of Women e-zine, a publisher at Jubilant Press, and the author of numerous books on spiritual growth. She can be contacted for comments or speaking engagements at rebekahmontgomery.com